Calamity Chang

Interview by: Shoshana. Above Photo: Jane Kratochvil

Photo: David Bowles
Photo: David Bowles

Q: You are one of the co-producers for the Second Annual  Asian Burlesque Spectacular to take place May 16th in NYC.  To my knowledge, this is the first race- based burlesque festival *ever*.  Why was it important to the producers to have an Asian-only festival?  Have audiences been diverse, or predominantly Asian? 

From a marketing point of view, our show title creates a two-fold effect. First, it makes people stop and think twice. “I didn’t know there were Asian burlesque performers.” Then it makes them think, “How is Asian burlesque different?” We invite them to come and find out!

It is important to Sukki and I to do this race-specific show, because we want to present Asian female sexuality vis a vis our own agency rather than through pop culture’s idea of what we are (geishas, hookers, masseuses, dragon ladies). It bothers me deeply that Asian women are always portrayed as not having control of our sexuality in a way that reminds me of how black men are portrayed as oversexed in popular culture. We want to challenge that perception and show Asian burlesque performers who are in control of how their sexuality is presented whether it’s funny, sexy, nerdy, freaky, whatever – on our own terms and choosing.

This year we also want to show that one doesn’t have to be ethnically Asian to do an act appreciating another culture (in light of Dita’s Opium Den controversy). Bunny Pistol (SF) is in this year’s line-up and it is because we think she’s a great performer and she has an Asian-inspired act that we love!

In last year’s show we had a mix audience of couples and friend groups. The couples were mainly white male and Asian female which makes me wonder whose idea it was to come to the show, the boyfriend’s or the girlfriend’s? In my own shows I have a mixed fan base of older female fans of Asian background, younger Asian female fans, and then non-Asian fans, of course. Lots of Caucasian doctors too for some reason.

Photo: Michael Webb
Photo: Michael Webb

Q: You are quite possibly one of the hardest working producers in the country with over five years of simultaneously producing weekly and monthly shows.  In your opinion, what are the three top qualities of a successful producer?

Thank you so much for saying that! I won’t lie but it’s a good feeling to have one’s work acknowledged by someone as respected as yourself. The top three qualities are: organization, time management, and tact. Organization is key in keeping all the bookings together and all performers’ needs such as props, need to leave early, or coming late from another show. I used to use my iCal on my phone to keep track of all the bookings everyone is in but there were so much computer synch-ing issues that I’ve abandoned digital and went back to an old fashioned calendar book where I keep everything. Time management is crucial as well especially for me since I produce, perform and I host my Thursday night show and some of my monthly shows. And lastly, having tact is essential in any field. I’ve learned this from years of working in advertising and sitting in presentations with fancy clients. Knowing how to say no but no injure anyone’s ego and feelings goes a LONG way to winning friends and influencing the right people. Part of having tact is the ability to empathize.

Q: Speaking of production advice, you and Jonny Porkpie have teamed up to teach The Driver’s Seat at the New York School of Burlesque where you mentor brand new producers through putting on their very first shows.  What do you find are the largest obstacles new producers face?

I love answering questions about Driver’s Seat! It’s the “Chang Pie” baby that we are both very enthusiastic about. Being able to work with new female performers who want to produce has made me feel like I am actively empowering women to take the rein, or the driver’s seat, so to speak. We are having our first boy producer though in April in a show featuring boylesque performers in NYC. The question that stumps the new producers always have to do with pay rate and how to approach established performers for bookings. I also notice that sometimes performers think too much like performers and don’t think for the audience which leads to a show theme that doesn’t translate well to a general public. We help them refine their show concept so it has a wider audience reach and put more butts in the seats!

Slipper Room.  Photo: Katja Heinemann
Slipper Room. Photo: Katja Heinemann

Q: In researching your work as a performer I stumbled across your Hello Kitty act which is performed to what is perhaps the most offensive song I have ever heard called “Asian Hooker”.  You seem to be taking acknowledging every Asian stereotype there is and throwing right back in the audience face, while still managing to create an enjoyable, humorous number.  I would love to know more about the evolution of the act.  What was your first reaction when you heard the song, how did the act evolve in your mind, and what do you hope audiences walk away with from the number?

You hit it on the head. Yes, it’s a terrible song but Steel Panther is a parody metal band and ALL their songs are terrible. The first song I heard by them is “Stripper Girl” and it’s awful of course and sexist etc but when you listen to the entire song and take into consideration their entire body of work, how they present themselves on stage and in their social media interactions, even their music is a tacky tribute to hair metal, it’s quite clear that they are being funny. However irony isn’t always the magic answer and it’s very difficult to pull off. For example, the recent controversy over another song called “Asian Girlz” (Day Above Ground) is a great example of racist lyrics trying to pass as irony or celebration. So part of my taking on Steel Panther’s “Asian Hooker” is to put an actual Asian icon (Hello Kitty) to the song then as the final reveal and actual Asian face (me) to the song. I also do think Hello Kitty as an icon has become so capitalized by consumer culture that she really indeed is the biggest Asian hooker of them all! I think it helps to subvert the speaker’s identity (in this case the male voice) when an actual Asian person is embodying the song. I have seen on YouTube other non-Asian performers perform to that song in a Geisha outfit and that made me feel very uncomfortable.

Photo: Michael Webb
Photo: Michael Webb

Q: In your performance arsenal, you also have a tribute to Mei Ling.  The name seems to be a common one that producers felt sound “ethnic enough” for “oriental” dancers in the “good ol’ days”.  How were you able to nail down the single performer you wanted to pay homage to?  Was the research harder than say researching some of her Caucasian peers in the industry?  What were the elements you choose to make sure were as authentic as possible, and which ones did you decide to be creative with?

I was drawn to this “Mei Ling” because there’s hardly anything about her out there! Janelle Smith, a historian and archivalist in her own right, and the creator of Vintage Photos of Burlesque Performers on Facebook has been super helpful in tracking down the few last remaining tidbits on her. She found a 1949 ad for Mei Ling appearing in Minneapolis, MN which I’ve never seen before in all my research. I have met friends on Facebook who stumble on a forgotten box of photographs in their attics or storage spaces and suddenly they see photos of their grandmother in glamorous showgirl costumes. They start to do research but there’s nothing left to find. Either the family member has passed away and left nothing about that part of their life which most of the time they regard as shameful and not to be discussed (common in Asian culture when it comes to sex) or in some sad cases, the family member has dementia and can’t recall the past. And the fact that “Mei Ling” is obviously a stage name created to orientalize, it’s even harder to find information about who she was.
It would be amazing if I knew what song she danced to based on the one photo I have of her from which my tribute act is based on. I had to be creative with the song so I chose one of the classic Shanghai jazz songs that was popular during the 1930s. I duplicated Mei Ling’s costume based on the photograph, and I hired Jamie von Stratton to make the robe from scratch, Amber Ray to make that stunning headpiece, and Wae Messed to make the panels and triangle bra underneath.

Calamity Chang wearing her signature shade.  Photo: Webb
Calamity Chang wearing her signature shade. Photo: Webb

Q: You recently became one of the twenty burlesque performers from around the globe to be honored with your very own shade of lipstick by RED.  How involved were you in the process of creating the Calamity Chang signature shade?

I am so lucky to have met Adam Coutts, the founder of the RED Burlesque line. We got along right away when I met him at the Don Spiro photo shoot the day after the NY Burlesque Festival. Angie Pontani had organized a photo shoot with Don for performers of the festival where we can select a color of our choice and wear it in our shoot. I showed up at Slipper Room, ready to go hair and makeup ready except my lipstick. I walked up to the RED booth and was all, “Are you sure you have color that Asian skin can wear?” So imagine me saying that with too much attitude and flipping my hair around. Adam totally got my sense of humor and handed me “Strawberry Siren” and it was beautiful. Then we talked about having me be the 19th shade so while he was in town we met up and I was able to select a shade out of about a dozen unreleased shades to be Calamity Chang.


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